Civil servants civilly serve

Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist

A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.

The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.

But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.

Time for a tactical withdrawal

Matt Jukes – Medium

The UK government design principles – last updated only a few days ago – still unambiguously assert:

10. Make things open: it makes things better

We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets – howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.

But of course the clarity of the principle is no guarantee of the consistency of its observation – and this post argues strongly both that the principle is now less observed than in the headier times of recent years and that this is a very bad thing.

That prompts the question of whether openness is – or can be  – an independent variable, separate from the wider political context. I have argued elsewhere that it is far easier for civil servants to be open about some kinds of activity than others, and that in particular that it is easier to be open about process than about substance. So it is possible that what has changed is the balance of activity; it’s possible that overall levels of political sensitivity have gone up – but it is also possible that openness is still seen as a slightly maverick activity, and that it will tend to decline unless it is actively nurtured.

The rhetoric of openness – not just in the design principles but, for example in the availability of tools for open policy making (to say nothing of broader initiatives such as OECD’s observatory of public sector innovation) – is still alive and well. If the substance is fading, this post should be read as much as a call to arms as an acknowledgement of retreat.

We’re missing the point of digital government

Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper – Apolitical

‘The point about the digital transformation of government,’ the authors observe, ‘is that digital transformation isn’t the point.’ That apparently trite thought both unlocks some very important questions and also forces confrontation with the fact that some of those questions are very hard – which is perhaps why they have so often been wished away. It doesn’t help that ‘digital’ is used by many as a synonym for ‘technological’, so creating near limitless opportunities for mutual confusion. This article attempts to defuse that confusion by identifying four broad drivers of change, only one of which is directly about technology. It will perhaps be a mark of progress when we can get beyond calling the result digital transformation at all.

But once past that, this is a serious and important attempt to understand how governments – both the ones we have, and the ones they might become – are responding to changes in the environment in which they operate. Government is about service design, but it is also about democracy and engagement, about visibility and legitimacy. Too many technologists don’t understand how government works; too many people in government don’t understand what technology could and should be doing for them and for the people they serve – and both groups too often fail to realise that hard boundaries between them are themselves part of the problem.

The article is a teaser for the authors’ new book, Are we there yet? (spoiler: no). Its focus is on Australia, but that shouldn’t discourage readers from elsewhere, who will see issues they recognise and will have much to gain from the understanding and insight with which they are discussed.

Government as a Platform

Richard Pope posted a series of tweets linking to all the outputs from his time as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It’s some of the most sustained thinking and writing on digital government by somebody deeply involved in doing it there is, so since tweets sit at the curious intersection of the ephemeral and the permanent, it seemed worth bringing it all together. What follow are lightly edited versions of those tweets.

Government as a Platform Playbook

In part based on interviews with people from digital service groups around the world. Aims to provides teams building platforms in government with actionable guidance.

Government as a Platform – the hard problems

These are mostly bigger political/policy questions that need political capital to resolve.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The design of services & public policy

Part 3 – Shared components, APIs and the machinery of government

Part 4 – Data infrastructure and registers

Part 5 – Identity and trust

Curated lists

1. Cross-government registers, shared components and open APIs

2. Design systems and standards

3. Service standards and other technical standards (and a short article explaining the rationale)

Resources

Government as a platform reading list and various other resources

Stand-alone articles and blog posts:

The case for a design archive for digital services

The narrative around “data-sharing” in government needs resetting

Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government

Digital service standards and platforms

Digital proofs

Real-time government

Platforms for government? Platforms for society?

Interview with Will Myddelton – UK Government as a Platform programme

Making public policy in the digital age

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet  missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

Making what you do explicitly political

Alex Blandford – Medium

Technology is not politically neutral, nor can it be. So making technology choices is also making political choices – about who has power, who has agency, who gets to make choices and who has to act in a context set by choices made by others. Denying the politics of that – asserting that somehow technology is neutral or inevitable – is itself highly political. Digital is political not because there is something odd about digital, but because there is something ubiquitous about politics and political choices.

Given all that, there is a lot to be said for being explicit about it, in part because not being explicit means that some political positions – typically more technocratic ones – can be presented as neutral and beyond question when they are anything but. This post is an explicitly political post about being explicitly political, not in a partisan sense, but as a recognition that how choices are framed is a strong influence on how they get made.

Nesta Radical Futures brief

Sam Villis – OneTeamGov

A picture of a One Team Gov T-Shirt on a stage with One Team Gov bannersAfter 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).

As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:

What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Or,
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?

It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?

Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.

Making the centre hold: what works?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam – Institute for Government

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.

It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.

Becoming Prime Minister

Catherine Haddon – Institute for Government

Ministerial time and attention is the scarcest resource in government, prime ministerial time and attention doubly so. An impossibly hard job is then made harder by the circumstances in which people come to it and by the absence of meaningful preparation. This paper is a wholly sensible – and rather timely – attempt to help make the transition easier and the assumption of power more effective. Potential prime ministers would do well to read and act on it.

At the same time, though, it is an implicit acknowledgment of despair. The paper shows a system which works perilously close to the margins of not working at all and a concentration of responsibility and expectations for which preparation is not just inadequate but which it is hard to see how it could be made adequate. None of that is going to change any time soon, of course, so the need for this kind of pragmatic incrementalism is very real. But there is a much bigger and much more difficult debate waiting in the shadows behind it.

Introducing Missing Numbers: a blog on the data the government should collect, but doesn’t

Anna Powell-Smith – Missing Numbers

Sometimes what is missing can be as telling as what is present. The availability of data drives what can be said, what can be understood and what can be proposed. So the absence of data can all too easily lead to an absence of attention – and of course, even where there is attention, to an absence of well informed debate and decision making. So there is something important and powerful about looking for the gaps and trying to fill them. This new blog is trying to do exactly that and will be well worth keeping an eye on.

Radical Visions of Future Government

Tom Symons – Nesta

Nesta wants to reimagine government, and invites anybody to have a go. This post is a call for contributions, looking beyond the immediate constraints of austerity (explicitly) and Brexit (implicitly).

We are interested in views which challenge existing orthodoxies, as well as those which take current trends, technologies or ideas to a new frontier. For the purposes of this collection, we have no fixed view of what future government should look like. We bring an open mind and hope to be challenged and surprised.

The challenge is a good one and it will be interesting to see what ideas emerge. Some, no doubt, will be visionary descriptions of what might be possible, of what ambitions we might set for ourselves. But it would be a good balance if some at least also contained an account of how it might be possible to get there from here.

Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government

Richard Pope – Platform Land

A history of street lighting in Croydon might not seem like immediately compelling reading. But both the history and the parallels with digital government are unexpectedly fascinating.

A few points stand out. The first is the retrospective inevitability of commoditisation. The parallel between electricity networks and data networks may seem obvious, how far that moves up the stack and with what consequences is rather less so (because less of that had happened yet).

The second is a different way of coming at a question which has arisen around digital public services pretty much from their first appearance: does a model of government drive the design of online services, or does the building of online services drive thinking about government?

And the third is a good reminder that changing and modernising can be much harder than building from scratch, and that for governments more than most, the new is almost invariably intertwined with the old.

Government as a Platform, the hard problems: part 1 — Introduction

Richard Pope – Platform Land

The idea of describing things in terms of stacks is a familiar one in the worlds of technology and of operating models. It’s not such a familiar way of describing government, though it’s an idea with an honourable history, including Mark Foden’s essential summary in his gubbins video.

This post is a trailer for a series of forthcoming posts under the banner of Platform Land, which promises to be compelling reading. That promise rests in part on the recognition in this introduction of the fact that governments are both organisations with much in common with other kinds of organisation and at the same time organisations with some very specific characteristics which go well beyond service delivery:

Considerations of safety, accountability, and democracy must at all times be viewed as equal to considerations of efficiency.

The emergence of government platforms represents a new way of organizing the work of government. As such, the task at hand is not to understand how we patch existing systems of government, but of how we adapt to something new that will come with its own set of opportunities and challenges, risks and prizes.

On tribalism in politics

Jamie Susskind

Politicians are unusual people. One of the ways in which they are unusual is that they have a tendency to be very strongly tribal. Another is that that makes it easy for them to think that that is normal. Politicians of one tribe in some ways find it easier to understand (and in some ways respect) politicians of a competing tribe than they do people whose instincts are less tribal.

This post (originally a series of tweets) is a reflection by somebody once of one of the tribes who now sees political tribalism as a big problem. There’s food for thought here both for members of the tribes and for those who seek to understand and work with them. That latter category includes, of course, non-political public servants who work with politicians and in political systems. They (we) are the very opposite of tribal (in this category of tribes – there are of course many others). At its best, that’s a powerful symbiosis, at its worst it’s a recipe for deep confusion and mutual misunderstanding.

Machine Learning Meets Public Policy: What to Expect and How to Cope

Ed Felten

This is the video of a conference talk by Ed Felten, which is fascinating for a number of reason. He has been thinking hard about technology and the policy consequences of technology for a very long time, and doing so with deep technical expertise (on the explicability of algorithms, to take just one example).

But he also has been at the heart of the intersection of technology and public policy – a one man One Team Government – including a couple of years in the Obama White House. This talk is primarily about how machine learning lands in a public policy context and is immediately addressed to an audience at a big AI conference, whose perspective can be assumed to be technical.

Given that, the starting point is to underline a critical difference in perspective. At least in principle, science and engineering are about a search for truth. Democracy is not just not a search for truth, it is not really a search for anything. And that difference is simultaneously obvious, a strength and a source of deep confusion and misunderstanding

Democracy is not a search for truth; it is an algorithm for resolving disagreements

But this talk is interesting not just to an audience of technologist having the world of public policy explained by one of their own who has ventured into a strange and distant land. Given the importance of AI and machine learning – and indeed technology change more generally – to almost every aspect of policy, it is jut as important for policy makers and players in the democratic process to understand how their world is perceived. And from that perspective, this is a fascinating account of a strange world by a participant-observer who has retained his distance and brings a distinct professional perspective.

Government and digital technologies: the collision of two galaxies

Mark Foden

This is thinking at epic scale.

Consider the Milky Way crashing into Andromeda in about four billion years from now, taking another billion years to establish some form of stability.

Now consider the unstoppable force of technological (and social change) colliding with the established cultures and practices of government.

Now reflect on how good a metaphor the first is for the second. There’s probably less than four billions years to wait until we find out.

Real-time government

Richard Pope – Platform Land

New writing from Richard Pope is always something to look out for: he has been thinking about and doing the intersection of digital and government more creatively and for longer than most. This post is about the myriad ways in which government is not real time – you can’t track the progress of your benefit claim in anything like the way in which you can track your Amazon delivery. And conversely, at any given moment, Amazon has a very clear picture of who its active customers are and what they are doing, in a way which is rather less true of operators of government services.

He is absolutely right to make the point that many services would be improved if they operated – or at least conveyed information – in real time, and he is just as right that converted (rather than transformed) paper processes and overnight batch updates account for some of that. So it shouldn’t detract from his central point to note that some of his examples are slightly odd ones, which may come from an uncharacteristic confusion between real time and event triggered. There is a notification to potential school leavers of their new national insurance number – but since children’s sixteenth birthdays are highly predictable, that notification doesn’t need to be real time in the sense meant here.  It was very useful to be told that my passport was about to expire – but since they were helpfully giving me three months’ notice, the day and the hour of the message was pretty immaterial.

Of course there are government services which should operate on less leisurely cycles than that, and of course those services should be as fast and as transparent as they reasonably can be. But perhaps the real power of real-time government is from the other side, less in shortening the cycle times of service delivery and much more in shortening the cycle times of service improvement.

Is Estonia the Silicon Valley of digital government?

Rainer Kattel and Ines Mergel – UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

The story of how Estonia became the most e of e-governments is often told, but often pretty superficially and often with an implied – or even explicit – challenge to everybody else to measure themselves and their governments against the standard set by Estonia and despair. This post provides exactly the context which is missing from such accounts: Estonia is certainly the result of visionary leadership, which at least in principle could be found anywhere, but it is also the result of some very particular circumstances which can’t simply be copied or assumed to be universal. There is also a hint of the question behind Solow’s paradox: the real test is not the implementation of technology, but the delivery of better outcomes.

None of that is to knock Estonia’s very real achievements, but yet again to make clear that the test of the effectiveness of technology is not a technological one.

The Fast-Follower Strategy for Technology in Government

David Eaves and Ben McGuire – Governing

Governments should move slowly and try not to break things. That’s a suggestion slightly contrary to the fashionable wisdom in some quarters, but has some solid reasoning behind it. There are good reasons for governments not to be leading edge adopters – government services should work; innovation is not normally a necessary counter to existential threats; service users are not able to trade stability for excitement.

That’s not an argument against innovation, but it is an argument for setting pace and risk appropriately. As a result, this post argues, the skills government needs are less to do cutting edge novelty, and much more to do with identifying and adopting innovations from elsewhere.